Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cycle of poverty

My pal Josh Shear has a great post today about poverty.

In my previous job at a hunger-relief agency, we talked regularly about the cycle of poverty. I remember taking a group of potential donors on a tour of the facility and talking about hunger and poverty. This one lady started yammering on about how when she was a younger mother, she made all their food from scratch and went on and on about why can't the people who are hungry make their food from scratch too.

I waited until she was done.

I asked her if she worked when her kids were young. No.

But someone in the house worked? Yes, my husband.

Oh. Hm. I see. And you had money to buy groceries? Yes.

And you had a kitchen with working appliances? Yes.

Did you have pots and pans to cook with? Yes.

What about cooking utensils? Yes.

And did you know how to cook food? Yes.

Pretty soon, she had a different outlook on the situation.

I think that's part of the problem among people who are doing okay. They think, "Well if I can, so can they." One thing that people fail to notice sometimes is that they are just a couple paychecks away from the soup line themselves. It's just a matter of circumstance.

When I was interviewing for the job at the hunger-relief agency, they asked me what the root causes of hunger are. That's a heavy one to spring on a person, and certainly one I didn't have a definitive answer for and still don't. But what I ended up talking about is how I happened to learn how to properly shake hands, a necessary skill if you're trying to get a job, for example. I learned how to speak appropriately to other people, including bosses and peers. I can't exactly say how I learned these things, but I did and they've come in handy.

I was coaching someone before an interview a number of years ago. I started asking the tough questions you dread, but have to be prepared for, for example, "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" The person had not really been employed many places outside food service at the time, and said, "They're not going to ask that."

I said, "Yes, they are."

The person said, "No they aren't."

Pretty soon, the person was storming out of my apartment and days later called to tell me that they had, indeed, asked the question. The person told the interviewer that s/he didn't have any weaknesses.

S/he didn't get the job.

Education counts for a lot, sure, but so much of being successful in America is about these "soft skills" that are hard to quantify. Knowing how to speak in sentences, answer questions, finesse situations, shake hands, etc., makes the difference between working in an office for a decent salary and working at Burger King for minimum wage.

There isn't one answer that will solve the poverty problem in this country. Government programs help - if they're accessible to people and if the people are willing to use the services. Sometimes the fear of stigma is enough to keep a person away from services. No one wants to eat a meal that came out of a silver can that says, "USDA Pork" on the side of it. No one wants their friends to see that can in their cabinet.

It's tricky, poverty is, but we can make a difference. We just have to start.

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